A camel and a horse walk into a bar; OK, not really, but they do strike up an unlikely friendship

Interspecies buddies thrive at zoo
Unlikely friendship blooms at zoo
Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-13 10:13:13-05

CINCINNATI -- Sometimes friendship takes a surprising form. It may unite those from diverse backgrounds, opposing opinions, varying ages – or, in this case, even those of different species.

This is the story of an unlikely friendship that developed at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens between a Bactrian camel and a Przewalski horse.

In 2006, a pair of Przewalski horses moved next door to the Bactrian camel's exhibit at the zoo. The two species coexisted amicably but never seemed to take a particular interest in each other until female horse Bajkit’s life changed when her longtime mate Sunny unexpectedly died in August 2016.

Paul Reinhart, team leader of wildlife canyon and red pandas, noticed Bajkit spending more time gazing at the adjacent yard occupied by her dual-humped neighbors. He said Bajkit would often stand near the gate dividing the enclosures to be in close proximity and sometimes nose to nose with female camel Saari.

Bactran camel Humphrey says hello to team leader of wildlife canyon and red pandas, Paul Reinhart. (Photo by Christine Charlson)

“Przewalski horses live in herds and have a herd mentality,” Reinhart said. “It was obvious Bajkit was lonely; she would watch these guys, and she likes company. So I had the idea: Why don’t we try them together?”

Under close supervision, Reinhart put a halter on Saari then opened the gate, allowing Bajkit to enter. The pair immediately took to each other. In addition to making a new acquaintance, he said, both animals took great delight in exploring the other’s living quarters. They continued supervised visits for a couple of weeks to make sure all was well before introducing male camel Humphrey to the mix.

“We let him in, and he didn’t pay much attention at all,” Reinhart said. “He went over and started browsing the honeysuckle that these other two couldn’t reach. So his enrichment was he could get to some food source that nobody else could eat.”

All three happily share both exhibits each day as an interspecies herd of sorts, Reinhart said. The only time they spend apart is at night to sleep and in the mornings during feeding to ensure all animals get proper nutrition. All three spend plenty of time outdoors as both species come from frigid regions of Mongolia and adapt by developing pounds that shed in sheets during the spring.

“They actually do really well in the cold; they look forward to it,” Reinhart said. “When it’s really cold and it’s snowy and icy, they’ll lie down and their body warmth will melt that ice.”

In addition to sharing a love of cold weather, the pair share the unfortunate designation of being endangered species.

Przewalski horses were extinct in the wild (last being seen in 1966) until zoos from around the world bred the captive population and reintroduced them back into Mongolia in 1992. Currently around 300 horses live in the wild on a preserve. Approximately 1,000 Bactrian camels live in the wild, Reinhart said, with their numbers diminishing as a result of both habitat loss and game hunting.

“We take part in what’s called the wild camel protection foundation,” Reinhart said. “They keep a handful of wild camels, breed them and turn them loose. They do research, and they’re helping to keep Bactrian camels from going extinct.”

In zoos, Bactrian camels tend to be a bit larger due to better nutrition and an endless food supply, Reinhart said. To dispel the notion of camels carrying water in their humps, he explained they instead carry fat and nutrients. They live off those reserves when food isn’t readily available or when male camels are in “rut,” the name given to the time males devote to breeding. During this time, males including Humphrey fast, foam at the mouth and pepper themselves with urine to be more appealing to the ladies.

Reinhart said the tactic has proved successful, as Saari has already produced two calves – Bogart and Jack.

In terms of the interspecies herd, Reinhart said he hopes to add another calf next winter, as he suspects Saari is pregnant again. He doesn’t believe it will upset the social dynamics, as Bajkit watched Saari raise her two previous calves and showed great maternal instinct.

“When Saari had her two calves … before we put them together, Bajkit would stand by the gate, whiny and vocalize to the calf,” Reinhart said. “When the calf would go out of view, she really would start to vocalize because she really wanted to see that calf. She wanted to know where her baby was, even though it wasn’t her baby.”

This year will mark Reinhart’s 37th year working at the Cincinnati Zoo. Interspecies friendships can be witnessed between Reinhart and the animals to which he’s chosen to devote his life.

Humphrey happily demonstrated his affection as he rubbed his head against Reinhart’s beard. Reinhart admits his favorite part of the day is getting to interact with the animals.

“I love the place,” he said. “When I came into the zoo, I found a home.”